Monday, 29 September 2008

Jiminy Cricket! No Escaping This Grasshopper

My first stroll around Cambridge had me pass the Corpus Clock, just up the road, and it was a wonderful treat. This was something I'd anticipated, seeing articles about it on the BBC website, and elsewhere (here & here and see the video here). The enormous and ferocious grasshopper sitting on top of the clock is the clock's escapement, mechanism, a "grasshopper escapement" actually, a regulator developed by John Harrison and intended as an homage by the clock's inventor Dr John Taylor. What he has done is effectively to turn the clock inside out, so the escapement and escapement wheel become its major features. The grasshopper, exquisitely detailed, sits on top of the wheel eating away at time: the clock is called the "Chronophage". And an inscription on the outside ledge reads Mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (I John 2: 17). Time is not on our side.

The dial comprises a series of Vernier strips, beneath which are three discs which have a set of constantly lit LED lights. So the time telling is not digital but entirely mechanical.

But time is relative, too. So while Harrison's invention was an important step in the development of a clock that told the correct time (or rather a clock that told the correct time for a longer period of time), this clock is only correct once every five minutes. This is because it actually stops, speeds up, and slows down, making the viewer constantly aware of the passing of time. It does not just tell the time, it draws attention to time. It's a clever idea, and it is hard for me to express the discomfort felt when you actually see the clock stop. You almost hold your breath waiting for it to start again (like watching a patient flat-line!). The clock is supposed to remind us that tempus fugit, it confronts us with our own mortality.

As I start a research fellowship here in Cambridge, these are good and important things to have before me. Tempus fugit, so get on with it!


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